Why Everyone Should Drive An Old Car - Article
March 23, 2010 12:00 AM
When you drive an old car, you're paying attention. You're actually driving. You're physically involved in the experience.
When you're in a car like my 1913 Mercer, which has two-wheel brakes and 3-in.-wide tires, it's a must. You are driving defensively. You're paying attention to the driving situation around you. The number of people I see "driving" and doing something else at the same time–like reading, talking on the phone, eating, putting on makeup–is unbelievable. And then, crash!, they just hit things. And they've got four-wheel discs with antilock brakes. They've got the ability to stop in a tenth the distance of an older car.
Yes, in an older car, you're definitely more physically involved in the act of driving.
I always drive for pleasure. I like to drive. Consequently, I pay attention when I do it. When I'm in an older car and someone wants to cut in front of me, I smile and say, go ahead. There isn't that competitive, "You SOB. I'll ram my blah, blah, blah up your blah, blah, blah" thing going on. Besides, people see you driving a collector car and they cut you a lot of slack. It's a bit like the old lady crossing the street. People say, "Oh look, be careful, go ahead dearie …"
I contend that a certain number of traffic accidents occur because all cars look alike nowadays. You go down the road and there's just a sea of jelly bean shapes that seem to all blend in.
Recently, I was driving my '56 Chrysler Imperial on the freeway, and I passed a guy and he looked over, saw a huge shape he'd not seen before and shooosh!, he looked like he suddenly woke up. He didn't recognize me but he waved anyway. My car just looked odd to him. And rightly so. It had character compared to the look-alikes around us on the road. The Imperial has big whitewall tires and chromed wire wheels. So this enormous land yacht comes cruising by and this guy is just in his own world, tooling along. He sees the Imperial's big fins and the gunsight taillights on the back and, boing!, it got his attention. It registered.
That's part of the fun of old cars. People ask, "Aren't you afraid of being hit?" Actually, I think it's the other way around. People are less likely to run into you because they notice you. It's like blowing your horn. They think, what is that big thing? Lookit that!
People ask me if I'm afraid my old cars are going to break down when I drive them. I say, "Yeah, they break down all the time." With the kind of job I have, when my car breaks down, that's really the only time I get to relax. Because when it happens I can't do anything. I'm stuck by the side of the freeway, so I might as well take a break.
Speaking of freeways, you know what stinks about freeways these days? There's no breakdown lane anymore. What used to be the breakdown lane is now the HOV diamond lane.
A guy passed me the other day in a Sunbeam Tiger. I thought, I'll go after him and wave. I used to have one of those. And just as I pull up to him, the whole thing goes wooooff!, up in flames! And he has no fire extinguisher. So he pulls over to the left side of the road and I pull in behind him. Turns out it was just an electrical fire. We disconnected the battery and got it out. But now we're stuck in the fast lane and people are whizzing by. I called the Highway Patrol and they came, but believe me, there's no place you can even break down anymore. And in new cars, once you're broken down, you're broken down. The ability to get a modern car going again is absolutely gone. I always stopped and helped people with car problems in the old days. Six times out of 10, it'd be a loose wire or something simple. And you could get them going. But now, all you can do is call for help.
I was on the freeway a few months ago and I saw these five guys stuck with an old car. I pull up and they're all talking in Spanish. So I say, "Are you okay?" And they say, "Si, si," and so I offer my telephone. One guy says, "Gracias," and he dials a number. He talks for a few minutes, then passes the phone to the next guy, who talks awhile, then passes it on. Finally, all five have spoken and I'm thinking okay, what the heck. Finally, I ask for the phone back and go on my way.
A month later, I get my phone bill for that call: $98! Turns out they called their mother in El Salvador. I'm thinking they're calling the tow truck and they're calling El Salvador on my cellphone.
People talk about road rage a lot these days. I think it's all phoney baloney. There's no such thing as "road rage." It just sounds good on the news. All road rage is, if you put people, if you put mice, if you put any group of mammals in a crowded situation, some sort of rage will occur. One of the people or one of the mice will be the first to break or snap or pop.
Take that person out of a car and he's not suddenly a nice, relaxed guy. There's something else going on in that guy's head. That guy is already a possible mental case. That guy is going to react violently in any situation where he's crowded. I mean, he could be waiting in line for a restroom at a baseball game, and there's a hundred people ahead of him, and snaaaaaaaap!
Road rage doesn't happen except in traffic. It's just crowding. No one goes down the freeway, pulls up next to someone and starts screaming at them. It just doesn't happen. But road rage has become one of those great hot buttons newscasters always come up with. It's like that unintended acceleration thing. You remember: "Cars that kill! Film at 11." All that stupid stuff.
If it happens to you, pay no attention.
It'll go away.
Jay practices that which he preaches. He doesn't only drive 'em, he works on 'em.
Jay's 1913 Mercer Raceabout is an instant defensive-driving instructor. Besides the car's rarity, it has two-wheel brakes and 3-in.-wide tires.
By Jay Leno
Photographs by John Lamm
Via: Published in the May 1999 issue of Popular Mechanics.